Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Updated: March 17, 9:30 AM ET
10 burning questions heading into first round
By Graham Hays
A blank NCAA Tournament bracket is nothing more than 63 unanswered questions. But hidden between the black lines in each of those thinning columns are hundreds of additional subquestions.
Here's a look at 10 such questions arising from this year's field of 64 teams.
Where is the place to be during the opening two rounds?
Since playing host to George Washington's forces after their famous trip across the Delaware River in 1776, Trenton, N.J., has been perhaps best known as one of the state capitals that plagues students in elementary school geography bees (unless -- like Samuel Alito, Dennis Rodman and Jon Stewart -- they are from there). But for college basketball fans, the city's Sovereign Bank Arena is suddenly a destination of choice for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
From an intriguing first-round game between Dawn Staley's Temple team and Jen Rizzotti's highly regarded Hartford Hawks to potential second-round slugfests between Georgia and Temple and Rutgers and Texas A&M, the site promises some of the most hard-fought action of the first four days. Let the top seeds strut their stuff elsewhere; Trenton has the drama.
Could a team play spoiler in the controversial Cleveland Regional?
Absolutely. And the action in the Cleveland Regional has a chance to get heated long before the teams start thinking of field trips to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. North Carolina, Tennessee and Rutgers make this the most top-heavy region in memory, but it doesn't end with those three. Sprinkled through the region, teams like UCLA, Texas A&M and Old Dominion have noteworthy sleeper profiles.
Texas A&M, a potential second-round opponent, is precisely the kind of team Rutgers struggled against this season. The Aggies harass opponents for 40 minutes, forcing more than 22 turnovers a game while counting on point guard A'Quonesia Franklin to keep them from reciprocating with turnovers of their own. The Aggies don't have much reliable size in the post, but unless Rutgers freshman Kia Vaughn turns it on, that isn't as debilitating a factor against the Scarlet Knights as it is against other elite teams. In the end, a loss to West Virginia in the Big East quarterfinals might wind up saving Rutgers' season if it deprives Texas A&M of the element of surprise against a team too caught up in its own success.
In the other half of the region, UCLA looms as a potentially dangerous hurdle for North Carolina if (and it's a big if) the Bruins are able to escape a likely second-round encounter with Purdue on the Boilermakers' home court in West Lafayette. Much as Texas A&M has the right pieces to contend with Rutgers in a slugfest, perhaps no team seeded fifth or lower has the athletes to run with Carolina that UCLA does. Fans east of the Mississippi will cry about questionable Pac-10 defense, but the trio of Noelle Quinn, Lisa Willis and Nikki Blue is not as far removed from Ivory Latta & Co. as some might imagine.
Which other team has the best chance to knock off a No. 1 before the regional finals?
Doug Bruno's DePaul team, which had little trouble making the transition from Conference USA to the Big East this season, could make LSU pay for not being equipped to trade 3-pointers in a potential Sweet 16 game, but keep the closest eye on Ohio State as the Buckeyes make their way to Albuquerque.
In most instances, figuring out a way for the winner of the 8-9 game to challenge the top seed in the second round involves a list of hypotheticals longer than the last Harry Potter book and equally dependent on magic and charms. But in this region, it might only take a glance back to December, when Boston College pushed Ohio State all the way to overtime. And even if the Buckeyes -- who are admittedly a much better team now with Ashley Allen healthy -- get past the Eagles (or dangerous No. 9 seed Notre Dame), that still leaves a potential Sweet 16 showdown against Arizona State.
With the size of Kristen Kovesdy and 6-foot-6 freshman reserve Kirsten Thompson to battle Jessica Davenport inside, and the depth and defensive pressure to wear down the Buckeyes' backcourt, the Sun Devils could finish the job they nearly completed against No. 1 seed North Carolina in the Sweet 16 last season.
Will home cooking play a role in this year's bracket?
A No. 1 or No. 2 seed has exited the NCAA Tournament during the first four days of play just three times in the last four years (No. 7 Minnesota over No. 2 Kansas State in 2004 and, in 2002, No. 7 Old Dominion over No. 2 Purdue and No. 7 Drake over No. 2 Baylor).
And in a season when Rutgers went 16-0 in the Big East regular season and still found itself a No. 3 seed in the same region as the No. 1 overall seed, it seems as if the pool of elite teams has both expanded and distanced itself from the rest of the pack, making early upsets that much more miraculous. But a potentially hostile environment could make things interesting for Tennessee.
The Lady Volunteers took the loss of a No. 1 seed like Peter McNeeley taking a punch from Mike Tyson. Tennessee had a very legitimate case for a No. 1, but the tone of post-selection comments from both Pat Summitt and Shanna Zolman was still surprising in its disillusionment. On one hand, maybe the Vols take the perceived slight and rally around their coach. On the other hand, a team already weary from struggling with a lack of depth could come out sluggish after spending too many hours looking at the mess that could develop in Cleveland.
That might not matter against Army in the first round, but it would matter a great deal if Tennessee's second-round game in Norfolk involved hometown No. 10 seed Old Dominion. The Lady Vols handled the Monarchs early in the season, but that was in Knoxville with point guard Alexis Hornbuckle still healthy. With the crowd likely loudly supporting an ODU team that forces a lot of turnovers and keeps the game moving, Tennessee's short bench could be trouble.
On paper, the Volunteers should handle either Old Dominion or George Washington with ease. On paper, the three other No. 2 seeds should have smooth sailing, too.
So, who is the real favorite in Albuquerque
Ohio State and Big Ten fans won't like it, but it's probably Maryland. The Terrapins simply proved more in the regular season, with late wins against Duke and North Carolina, than Ohio State did by beating Oklahoma early in the season and beating up on the rest of the Big Ten in a down year for the conference. And although the Terps have to deal with defending champion Baylor in their half of the region, Brenda Frese's team still looks to have the easier road to the regional final in Albuquerque.
Which No. 3 seed has the best chance of making it to Boston?
Baylor might have a tough time making it back to the Final Four with Maryland and Ohio State around, but another team on the same seed line as the defending champ ended up with the best draw it could have hoped for. By landing in the same region as LSU and Oklahoma, No. 3 seed Stanford finds itself grouped with two contenders who rely as much on execution and post play as on simply overwhelming opponents with their athleticism. And Tara VanDerveer can deal with execution.
The Cardinal started slowly this season but seemed to find a groove after a tough loss to Arizona State on Feb. 16. In the two weeks leading up to Selection Monday, they beat NCAA-bound Washington and USC by a combined 60 points before dropping an overtime thriller to UCLA in the Pac-10 title game. With 6-3 Brooke Smith and the healthy return of 6-5 Kristen Newlin, Stanford is one of the only teams out there with the size inside to keep players such as Sylvia Fowles and Courtney Paris honest (if still not contained) on both ends of the court.
Who is the most overlooked player in the field?
All right, that's a loaded question coming off the last query. But Stanford's Candice Wiggins is all too often left out of discussions that involve names like Seimone Augustus, Ivory Latta, Cappie Pondexter, Candace Parker, Courtney Paris, Sophia Young and Monique Currie. All Wiggins did this season was average 21.2 points per game, doing so despite being the focus of every defense she played against.
And she did it while averaging more assists than Pondexter, as many rebounds as Augustus and both hitting more 3-pointers and shooting a better percentage from behind the arc than Latta. She even finished with just 11 fewer blocked shots than Young
and she's 5-11. Say whatever you want about the Pac-10, but that's as dominating a statistical performance as we've seen in recent seasons.
Wiggins was terrific in a win against Connecticut in the Sweet 16 as a freshman, but it might take another stellar effort in March to get people to pay attention.
Which program is best positioned to make the leap to elite status?
Assuming that Maryland, despite its lack of Final Four appearances, either already has made the leap or is paused somewhere in midair, the best candidates might both reside in the Bridgeport region. A trip to the Sweet 16 for either Mickie DeMoss' Kentucky Wildcats or Staley's Temple Owls could cement a place in the game's upper echelon.
DeMoss' program might have a slight long-term edge based on the protection provided by competing in a major conference. Playing in the Atlantic 10 means the Owls will continue to struggle for national attention once they finish with Staley's typically intense nonconference schedule. Signing Carly Ormerod last year and highly regarded high-school prospect Arnika Brown this year suggests DeMoss is securing her in-state recruiting and can soon begin to compete for top national prospects.
For now, Kentucky's progress will be linked to holding off a dangerous Chattanooga team in the first round and potentially squaring off against Michigan State in the second. The Spartans made their own statement last season by advancing all the way to the national championship game, and a win for the Wildcats would give the program instant legitimacy and a showcase game against Duke (assuming the Blue Devils advance) in the Sweet 16.
Which conference has the most to prove?
The Pac-10 always has something to prove in March, but it's time for the Mountain West to prove it's more than a glorified mid-major. Not only did the conference receive four bids this season, but No. 5 seed Utah and seventh-seeded BYU are both favored by the seeding to win first-round games and No. 11 New Mexico and No. 11 TCU have fighting chances against Florida and Texas A&M, respectively. All this after the conference went just 1-3 in last year's NCAA Tournament.
The pressure is especially intense for Utah, which finished the season ranked 17th in the RPI despite just one nonconference win over a team going to the NCAA Tournament (at NC State) and a 3-4 record against the other NCAA-bound MWC teams.
Teams in the Mountain West receive some of the best fan support in the women's game, especially at places such as New Mexico, but the MWC receiving three at-large bids while schools like Western Kentucky and Indiana State head to the WNIT suggests it's time the conference send a representative beyond the first week of the tournament for the first time since the Lobos won two games on their home court in 2003.
Who is this year's Katie Feenstra?
The short answer is no single player can fill Feenstra's rather large glass slippers. The mammoth center gave upstart Liberty the kind of physical advantage teams with double-digit seeds almost never experience. Behind 6-8 Feenstra and the 3-point looks she created for her teammates, No. 13 seed Liberty advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 last season. This season, winning even one game would be a significant accomplishment for some stars playing under the radar.
Give UW-Milwaukee's Traci Edwards three more seasons and she might well be able to carry the Panthers to a Sweet 16. A first-round encounter in the Bridgeport region with Liz Shimek and No. 4 seed Michigan State is a tough assignment this year, but 6-2 Edwards is one of the most intriguing mid-major bigs. Just a freshman, she led UW-Milwaukee in scoring (16.2 ppg) and rebounding (10.2 rpg), including 21 points and eight rebounds against DePaul. And she showed enough versatility to rank third on the team in assists and post 43 steals.
When No. 12 seed Tulsa squares off against NC State in the first round, the Wolfpack's Tiffany Stansbury might not be the best post player on the court. Tulsa junior Jillian Robbins did it all for the Golden Hurricane this season, averaging 18.1 points, 13 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 2.3 blocks. Included in those averages were a 28-point, 22-rebound effort at Arkansas and an 18-point, 19-rebound game against Florida State. It might be asking a bit much for Robbins and Tulsa, making its debut in the NCAA Tournament, to beat a tough ACC foe, but they won't lose the game in the post.
And although she doesn't fit Feenstra's physical mold, Middle Tennessee State guard Chrissy Givens might be the player most capable of lifting a small school to first-round glory. The nation's eighth-leading scorer, wedged between Pondexter and Wiggins on that list, Givens paces a team that knows something about springing upsets in the NCAA Tournament (beating No. 4 seed North Carolina in 2004 and No. 5 seed NC State in 2005). She posted 24 points and nine rebounds in a loss to Georgia this season and had three double-doubles. Against a Utah team with somewhat dubious credentials for a No. 5 seed, Givens and the Blue Raiders could be giant killers once again.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.